Nielsen and the Wasteland
I received another online opinion survey the other day and clicked it into that bottomless pit of cyber-trash. Unsolicited surveys remind me not to join social networks or give out my e-mail address.
I went cold turkey on opinion surveys after a brief encounter with the Nielsen folks, the electronic snoopers who presume to survey television viewing habits. I was told that my family was part of a "select" group, suggesting that it was an honor to be chosen; that a gift was forthcoming; and that the data from my embedded device would influence the folks who select advertising and content for television programming. After a brief chat with the cold caller, I surmised that Nielsen families might be the real culprit for the banalities that pass for content -- news and entertainment -- on the American airwaves.
A little annoyed by the introductory pandering, I allowed as how a Nielsen box in my house might be an "honor" in the same sense that a court-ordered ankle bracelet is an honor. I asked the nice lady to define the demographic that ranks bad habits over privacy. Silence ensued.
I then suggested that the quickest way to audit viewing preferences was to pick up a TV guide and read the options: mind-numbing bimbo chat in the AM, banal bimbo soaps and cartoons in the PM, followed by twenty minutes of news trivia, amateur "talent" shows, faux "reality" shows in prime-time, and then a late-night orgy of celebrity onanism (see "wanker") and adolescent vulgarity. Hat tips to Dave Letterman, Conan O'Brien, and Craig Ferguson.
I told the Nielsen gal that my young niece, and her friend, wanted to watch a game show one evening while preparing dinner. Alas, we had to endure erectile dysfunction and sanitary napkin commercials -- twice each -- during a twenty-minute broadcast. I asked Lady Nielsen if opinion surveys would alter that regimen of pecker-pill adverts at mealtime. She was not amused. I was tempted to inquire if she had ever met a chap who actually had "an erection that lasted more than four hours." Fortunately, telephone etiquette prevailed.
I also asked the good lady if she monitored the opinions and habits of people who didn't watch much TV at all. More silence ensued.
I then volunteered that, in my experience as a former Intelligence professional, people subject to involuntary electronic or digital surveillance were a select, albeit unsavory, demographic. I further suggested that people who "volunteer" to implant electronic monitors in their homes might be worse still -- that is, folks who don't have a life.
In short, I speculated that flat-screen zombies might not be the best demographic for shaping culture. I also hinted that the Nielsen "family" might be a low common denominator. "Are you trying to hurt my feelings?" I enquired. More dead air.
I also asked how many people rejected Nielsen's TV diaries, set boxes, or the Orwellian "people" meter. She claimed not to have that information. Then I tried negotiation. I said that I would be happy to assist the 34,000 salaried soldiers at Nielsen -- for free -- if she would allow her troops to cut my grass once a week -- for free. She was certain that Nielsen didn't do lawns.
I then asked if she thought the Nielsen sheep were a captive audience, bound by ego -- or just slaves to pixel autism. No answer! Next, I allowed as how if I were to answer questions, shouldn't she? Silence! I asked also how Nielsen got my unlisted phone number. No reply! And finally, I asked if she had ever encountered the notion of tautology in her work. Then she hung up.
I heard a radio rant about "low-information" voters a while later. At first, I thought the phrase was another example of media diffidence, implying poorly educated or ignorant without actually saying "stupid." Then I recalled the recent controversy about "vote-buying" in American presidential politics: the dependent 47% of political voters -- those folks who don't pay much in taxes, yet collect a government check, and still have more political clout than the private, tax-paying, productive demographic. At this point, I was fairly certain that the Nielsen family and the low-infos might be the same crowd; indeed, the Nielsen family would surely flourish as a subset of a larger bovine, servile audience.
Among five media options (TV, internet, radio, magazine, and newspapers), time spent watching television dominates with a 37% share. Cartoon shows like Family Guy and The Simpsons rule the "under 11 years of age" crowd. Feature-length cartoons -- adult animation -- now receives Academy Awards.
No surprise, then, that television is now adult America's favorite second job. Thirty-seven hours of viewing per week -- a time investment fast approaching an average work week. Television is also America's favorite babysitter. Small wonder, then, that women are the preferred demographic. Eighty-five percent of household viewing and purchasing decisions are made by women.
After 50 years of public and commercial service, data from the Nielsen families has underwritten cultural icons like Bart Simpson. Bart is Matt Groening's anagram for "brat." Indeed, Homer's kid has popularized cultural banalities such as "eat my shorts!" and "underachiever and proud of it!" The most successful cartoons feature selfish, obnoxious children -- and passive, clueless adults. Men are a special category of idiot on the small screen. Alas, the television arts hold a mirror to life.
OMG! There it was: Newton Minow's prophecy! Leave it to a lawyer. The most obvious things often hide in plain sight -- even the ugly truth about 21st-century culture. The worst among us are ascendant; the new social ideal is a fusion of childish culture and selfish politics. Worms in the apple of democracy.
Alas, I'm sure that my "unique household" will never hear from Nielsen again. But when I wonder why a prominent progressive like Minow, a former FCC chairman, could predict that a great experiment like the United States would become cultural and political "wasteland," I will be fairly certain about the worms and how they turned the apple. Or as Pogo might put it, "I have seen the enemy, and it is us!"
The author writes on occasion about politics, Intelligence, and national security.